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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Q&A: Middle East expert Shibley Telhami discusses Sadat’s legacy, the state of the region

Political scientist Shibley Telhami speaks about the Palestinian cause, the state of the region, and whether the theories of Samuel Huntington or Francis Fukuyama have held up

Ibrahim El-Sakhaway , Friday 24 Jan 2020
Shibley Telhami
Shibley Telhami
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When we look at Dr.ShibleyTelhami’s background, we find that he is one of the 1948 Palestinians. His awareness is an Arabian awareness, shaped in a different context by a new stage that transformed the conflict into a possibility of peaceful co-existence. Telhami was a member of an elite that aimed at creating something new. Thus, he travelled to America to study, and at the same time be closer to the behind-the-scenes administration of world affairs, above all the Middle Eastern problem and the Palestinian cause.

He was a brilliant learner who didn’t stop at the stage of studying but became engaged in politics. He worked as an adviser to former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton and as a member of the US delegation to the Trilateral US-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee, which was mandated by the Wye River Agreements.

He participated in the Iraq Study Group as a member of the Strategic Environment Working Group. He also worked within the US Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World. He participated in drafting the reports of the Council on Foreign Relations regarding American diplomacy, Arab-Israeli peace efforts and the security of the Gulf.

His book The Stakes: America and the Middle East was a bestseller and was selected by Foreign Affairs as one of the top five books on the Middle East in 2003. His other books include Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords; International Organizations and Ethnic Conflict, ed. with Milton Esman; Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. with Michael Barnett; and The Sadat Lectures: Words and Images on Peace, 1997-2008.

These experiences offered Telhami insight into the details of the decision-making process and how to influence it. During this time, he continued to write research and contribute to The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, with a sober and profound analytical eye and unique political vision. Telhami received a number of awards that came as a culmination of a rich career.

Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park and is a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, reminds us of the state of yearning in our region for a comprehensive and lasting peace, which we paid a heavy price to attain, engaging in a glorious war and signing a peace treaty.

However, we are still going in circles in our search for stability in a region that is threatened with dangers on every side. Because of this,Ahram Online began a discussion with Telhami as an academic, a political analyst and strategic thinker, to gain a valuable reading of a confused present and unknown future. 

Telhami answered the questions immediately after receiving them, out of respect for AhramOnline’s stature and also due to his keenness to state his opinion on different issues, including the objectives of the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, the strategic effect of the October war, the path of division and dispute between Hamas and Fatah and its impact on the Palestine cause, the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem, the American-Iranian crisis after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Gulf’s security and the Middle East more broadly.

Ahram Online: Would you please give the Egyptian reader some information about the Anwar Sadat program; what are its goals and activities?

Dr.Shibley Telhami: The Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland was established in 1997 as a result of a joint effort by the University of Maryland and Dr.Jehan Sadat, the former first lady of Egypt, who was at the time a fellow at the University of Maryland. It was intended to honour the peace legacy of President Anwar Sadat with programmes that advance peace, development, and understanding.

I am personally a professor of political science who had taught at multiple American universities and was a tenured professor at Cornell University when I was contacted by the University of Maryland to be the inaugural holder of the Anwar Sadat chair.

My own writings, multiple books, articles, and media publications are focused largely on international negotiations, American foreign policy, and Middle Eastern politics, especially public opinion in both the United States and the Arab world.

Beyond research and public policy, the Sadat programme includes several components: one is the Anwar Sadat Lecture for Peace, which has over the years hosted extraordinary leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, and others.

The Sadat Lectures have on some occasions attracted more than 10,000 people. We also host a Sadat Forum, sometimes more than once a year, which includes major personalities to discuss important issues of the day, from refugees to immigration to Middle East peace to the crisis with Iran.

To involve other people across fields in the dialogue about peace and justice, we have partnered with the Department of Art to establish the Sadat Art for Peace Program, which is an annual competition for the best art pieces on a related theme chosen every year.

We also host the Sadat Book Chats, which typically feature new authors to discuss their books with our faculty and students.

AO: What is American society’s image of President Sadat?

ST: Overall, the impression in America of President Anwar Sadat is a positive one. They see him as one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. Both former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a Republican, both of whom spoke at our programme, called him the greatest leader they had ever met. He is seen as a courageous leader who surprised the world in war and in peace.

It is true that the new generation of Americans may not have heard of him, but the American body politic does remember him historically as the man who abandoned the Soviet Union during the Cold War in favour of closer relations with the US, and then ended the war with Israel in an attempt to forge broader Middle East peace, before he was assassinated.

He still commands great admiration in Congress, and despite the deep polarisation between Democrats and Republicans that we are now witnessing in the US, American politicians are unified in their admiration of him. In fact, only recently he was awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.

AO: Forty-six years after the glorious October war and 41 years after Camp David: what was and what still is the strategic impact of the October war and the peace agreement on the region?

ST: Undoubtedly, the October war and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty changed the course of history in the Middle East. From the Egyptian point of view, the ultimate result was that Egypt regained every inch of the territories that it had lost in the 1967 war, and restored the reputation of its military by performing effectively in the October war -- in fact, more effectively than anyone would have expected, given the strategic picture that preceded the war.

Egypt has not fought a major war since, though it fought several devastating wars prior to its peace agreement with Israel. At the same time, when Sadat entered into a peace agreement with Israel, he spoke of a comprehensive peace that would lead to a restoration of rights of the Palestinians, and the end of the Israeli occupation, not only of the Sinai Peninsula, but also of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

We could never know whether, had he remained alive, he would have been able to achieve these broader goals. But certainly, these goals have not been achieved and Palestinians remain under occupation, and the Golan Heights has been all but annexed by Israel. It’s still an unfinished journey.

AO: To what extent was President Sadat ahead of his time? In your view, did the Palestinians make a mistake when they did not listen to Sadat’s advice totakepart in peace negotiations?

ST: One of the fascinating things in looking at President Anwar Sadat is that,earlier than anyone else, he foresaw the weakness and perhaps the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, which led him to open up the Egyptian economy to the West, loosen ties with Moscow, and create links with the US. This positioned Egypt well as the Cold War ended.

There are certainly those who think the Palestinians should have been more responsive to President Sadat’s initiative when he started his negotiations with the Israelis. At some level, the Palestinians could have been careful not to lose the backing of the most important Arab state, whose war with Israel in 1973, together with Syria, enhanced Arab stature and led to the UN recognising the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

As a political analyst looking at this period objectively, it is also not hard for me to see the dilemma that the Palestinians found themselves caught on. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, for which the PLO was responsible, lived in Syria and Lebanon, and their future would have been substantially affected by going against Syria, Iraq, and other Arab countries at that time.

But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the historical assessment, then and now, is that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would never have accepted relinquishing full control of the West Bank under any circumstances, for ideological reasons.

CertainlyPresident Sadat, to his credit, insisted on regaining every inch of Egyptian territory, and threatened to depart Camp David when Menachem Begin insisted on keeping control of Israeli settlements in the Sinai.

But one reason Begin was probably able to sell abandoning Israeli settlements in the Sinai to his political constituency is that he could argue that this enabled him to protect his control of the West Bank. No matter what the Palestinians did at the time, its improbable that Begin would have given the necessary concessions on the West Bank.

AO: To what extent does Hamas’s position towards the Palestinian Authority affect the Palestinian issue as a whole?

ST: It is clear to me, and to anyone who studies the Palestinian issue, that the deep division within the Palestinian movement, not just the physical division between Gaza and the West Bank, but especially the division between Hamas and the PLO, has been detrimental to Palestinian interests. This is not just because it’s hard to coordinate and that they both work against each other, and in the process undermine Palestinian interests, but it is also true that it impacts international support for the Palestinians, including Arab support.

Psychologically, Arabs care deeply about Palestine, and our public opinion polls have shown that historically. But people need points of reference to know what their support of the Palestinians means.

When Arafat was alive and the PLO was strong, they served as points of reference for the public to know what policy to support and what the Palestinians wanted. With the current division, it is hard for supporters to be energised, and for Arabs and other people who support the Palestinians to have a point of reference as to what their support practically entails.

AO: How do you view Trump's decision regarding the transfer of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and considering the Golan to be Israeli territory? Do you expect such decisions to fuel the situation and the continuation of the conflict?

ST:The Trump administration’s actions in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the embassy there, and later recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, are troubling steps that are contrary to international norms and laws and detrimental to the pursuit of Middle East peace. I have written about this in the US extensively and specified the reasons why these steps are problematic.

Having said that, President Trump does not decide what is internationally legal or normal. So the facts don’t change regarding the international position that the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem are occupied territories.

But the US is a superpower and its actions matter. In the short term, they embolden a right-wing Israeli government to avoid making concessions to the Palestinians.

But in the long term, this is not good for anyone, especially because the Trump administration has advanced the framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along religious lines, which is troubling.

The only way to resolve the conflict is to see it as a political conflict and frame it in the context of international laws and rules. Religion is important, and the religious rights of all must be respected, but if one starts defining the conflict in religious terms, about Jewish claims or Muslim claims or Christian claims, then we enter a zero-sum approach that creates nothing but confrontation ahead.

AO: What are the differences between Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitude when it comes to foreign policy? Who runs American foreign policy now?

ST: At the moment, the partisan divide in America between the Democrats and the Republicans is the deepest I have ever seen it, and I have been doing public opinion polls in the US for 30 years.

So at the moment, the American public on many issues doesn’t really make an objective assessment but frames it in the context of this partisan divide. On many issues, the public asks, “is Trump for this or against this?” and those who support him take his side and those who oppose him take the oppositeposition on the issues. This doesn’t hold on all issues in the same way, but generally this attitude affects almost every issue.

On the Middle East specifically, we have seen that Trump’s rhetoric that targeted Muslims actually had the opposite effect on public attitudes. In our public opinion polls, we found that Democrats and independents became far more sympathetic to Muslims because Trump attacked them, while Republicans didn’t change much.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we found that Trump’s pro-Israeli-right policy has made the Democrats a little angrier with Israel and somewhat more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

These attitudes certainly matter for policy but ultimately presidents have far more instruments to impact foreign policy than Congress. There is always a fight over how much discretion a president has and we have seen that recently after the killing of Iran’s QassemSoleimani, which was followed by Democrats in the House of Representatives passing a resolution trying to limit the president’s ability to wage war on Iran.

AO: What about the future of the region and the Gulf after the killing of Qassem Soleimani? What are the limits of the Iranian response in response to the US?

ST: The killing of Qassem Soleimani constituted an escalation that brought both the US and Iran closer to war, even though both sides had no interest in starting an all-out war. But the issue for Gulf instability is bigger: there are two significant events that have framed the current instability in the region that will not go away anytime soon, even as the immediate crisis between the US and Iran over Soleimani’s killing proceeded.

The first and by far the most important is the 2003 Iraq war. This war altered the security of the Gulf region and the Middle East broadly in detrimental ways, and the region is still unstable and suffering from the war’s impact. Even aside from the devastation of Iraq itself and the hundreds of thousands dead and wounded and the millions displaced, the war invited groups like Al-Qaeda to the region and helped create groups like ISIS.

Strategically, it ended the balance between Iraq and Iran, with Iraq not only being weakened but also coming under the influence of Iran. And the US’s inability to bring about its aims despite investing so much in that war has led the American public to be reluctant to be engaged in new wars in the region. In fact, a recent poll we conducted in the US shows that 76 percent of the American public think America’s interests do not warrant war with Iran.

This environment created huge insecurity for weaker Arab states in the Gulf whose security foundation was shaken and who were not accustomed to taking on the burden of their own security directly. It is not an exaggeration to say that the devastating Yemen war is an indirect result of the Iraq War. There is no end in sight to the structural instability that came out of the 2003 Iraq war.

But the second most important event, whose impact we are experiencing at the moment, is the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy toward Iran, which has imposed choking sanctions that Iranians simply cannot tolerate.

Of course, the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, an act that was problematic, but Iran would have tolerated that move as long as the rest of the international community could abide by that agreement. That was the initial reaction. But with the imposition of sanctions that included Iranian oil exports, it became clear that even Europe could not protect its trade with Iran in light of the American sanctions.

As a consequence, Iran’s incentive to constantly try to make the status quo uncomfortable for the US, its allies, and the oil markets has been great. This has not changed after Soleimani’s killing and the Iranian attack on the US base in Iraq. Add to this the Gulf state’s own reassessment, particularly after the 14 September attack on the Saudi oil facilities that briefly cut oil production by 50 percentand was blamed on Iran. The fact that the USdid not prevent the attack and did not take any military action after the attack generated considerable reassessment in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states, as their defence strategies have been principally tied to American protection. While the immediate crisis of Soleimani’s killing is behind us, we are still in a highly unstable environment.

Even though neither President Trump nor the Iranians are looking for an all-out war, new crises are inevitable, which puts the region on a slippery slope toward an unwanted war.

AO: Since Samuel Huntington released his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations, the world has been busy with the term and responding to it in the dialogue of civilisations and cultures. Is this hypothesis feasibleamid the conflicts and wars that currently taking place in the world?

ST: The clash of civilisations thesis had a built-in self-fulfilling prophecy, in that those who don’t define themselves along a civilisational divide can find themselves drawn to it if they believe that the outside world is looking at them that way.

We have seen this after the 9/11 attacks in how Americans started seeing Muslims, and we have seen this in how many Muslims around the world, including those who did not define themselves principally by their religion, rallied when they thought that the US was specifically targeting Muslims.

So the thesis is not only wrong; it’s dangerous as a school of thought. Western countries are divided among themselves, Muslim-majority countries are divided among themselves,Asian countries are divided. In fact, many countries are more internally divided than they are divided with the rest of the world.

As I have shown in my public opinion research, for example, Americans are now more divided internally along party lines to a degree that is greater than the divide between America and the rest of the world, including Arab countries.

AO: Thirty years after Frances Fukuyama's theses about the final victory for capitalist philosophies, was his proposal in The End of History linked to a specific phase of life or a limited period of the development of Western democracy and capitalism?

ST: This is not a phase of world history that fits nicely with Francis Fukuyama’s thesis. The rise of ultra-nationalism, the threats to democracy globally, including in Western countries, particularly the US, are a challenge to the picture that Fukuyama painted thirty years ago in framing The End of History.

Personally, I am troubled and worried about the rise of ultra-nationalism and the challenges that we face in my own country, the US, which I could not have imagined only ten years ago. I am personally a realist in my view of the world, and understand the role of power and self-interest in shaping politics.

But I have to say that the verdict on the future of democracy is still out. Deep down, I still believe that the voices of the people must be heard, that idea of justice remains powerful, and that ultimately these principles will come out on top. I hope it’s not just wishful thinking.

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